Coronavirus Update

Dear residents,

I know from all the emails I am receiving that people have lots of questions and concerns about the pandemic and latest restrictions.

I have pulled together an update on all the things people are raising with me. I know it’s a long read! But hopefully this covers the questions you have and provides some useful information.

I remain very keen to hear from constituents and raise your concerns with the Government wherever possible. I also continue to press for the support our City and our region need to get through this pandemic, saving lives and protecting jobs.

Current restrictions
As you will know, from 5 November 2020 until 2 December 2020, people in England will only be permitted to leave home for specific reasons, including: education; work; exercise and recreation outdoors; medical reasons; to shop for food and essentials; and to provide care for vulnerable people, or as a volunteer.

Essential shops will remain open and click-and-collect services will continue. Schools, colleges, universities, childcare and early years settings will also remain open. However, non-essential shops, leisure and entertainment venues and the personal care sector will be closed.

Provision for non-COVID-19-related healthcare will continue and people are being advised to use the NHS, attend appointments and collect treatments in the usual way.

Everybody is concerned about the rise in infections, hospital admissions and – tragically – the number of deaths. People in Newcastle and right across the country will be anxious about what will happen in England over the coming weeks; anxious about their health and the health of their friends and family, and anxious about their jobs.

The central lesson from the first wave of this virus is that, if you don’t act early and decisively, the cost will be far worse. More people will lose their jobs, more businesses will be forced to close and, tragically, more people will lose their loved ones.

I am disappointed that Ministers in the UK Government did not act on the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) back in September, only now to ask MPs to approve emergency regulations to shut England down. I am concerned that the delay in introducing restrictions will come at an economic cost and a human cost, and as a result, this lockdown will be longer than it needed to be.

I did not come into Parliament to restrict people’s freedoms, to prevent people meeting their friends and their loved ones, or to decide when people can and cannot leave their home or how many people may attend a funeral. I do not want Parliament to be closing businesses, gyms, bars or places of worship. Indeed, I do not want Parliament to be legislating on any of these issues, least of all after the British public have made so many enormous sacrifices already.

While these new restrictions for England are not in any way desirable or perfect, I do not believe there is any excuse for inaction or for allowing the virus to continue to spread. It is with a heavy heart, and in the national interest, that I support them. Here is a video I recorded on the day of the vote explaining my position.

Support for physical and mental wellbeing
As we prepare to enter a second period of national lockdown, we must be mindful of how hard this prolonged disruption and enforced isolation is hitting the nation’s mental wellbeing.

I have written to the Prime Minister asking him to consider what potential allowances can safely be made for important support like baby groups, places of worship and some sports and leisure activities to help people cope through these troubling times.

I know these are issues concerning many local residents, particularly as we face this second lockdown during the winter months. You can read a copy of my letter here.

One positive outcome is that the Government have agreed to relax the rules on baby and toddler groups so that children under school age are now exempt from the 15 person limit on such gatherings meaning more people can attend. During our petitions committee inquiry we heard from so many new parents who have missed out on this vital help during the pandemic.

We’ve been pressing the Government to act since the Spring. I’m pleased they’ve recognised this needed to change. I’ll continue pressing them to recognise the impact this is having on the physical and mental wellbeing of so many people.

Places of worship
Under the new restrictions, places of worship can open for individual prayer, funerals and formal childcare, but sadly not for services. Weddings are also no longer permitted expect under the most exceptional circumstances.

Leaders of faith communities across England have expressed disappointment that they were not consulted ahead of the Government’s announcement. Indeed, I am concerned that the way in which the most recent restrictions were announced shows a disconnect with faith groups and a lack of appreciation for the importance of places of worship in our communities. This is something I raised in my letter to the Prime Minister, mentioned above. I have also signed Early Day Motion 57663.

Couples across the country have had their dream wedding cancelled, or seriously curtailed, as a result of current Covid19 restrictions, causing heartache to many. Weddings are currently banned under the national lockdown rules and will likely be again subject to strict limits on guest numbers and enforcement of social distancing when they resume.

People have been left in limbo, not able to plan for the wedding they dreamed of nor even for a wedding that they could compromise on, and not knowing whether the insurance will cover the losses of everything that they’ve spent. I’ve called on the government to give some certainty to people facing this difficulty (watch here).

Economic support
The pandemic has had a huge impact on our economy. For the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors in our region it has been especially difficult. Many jobs have already been lost and with continued restrictions there is a danger more will be lost without the right economic package to get us through this time.

Economic support must go hand in hand with the introduction of public health measures, and we need clear, consistent and fair funding for jobs and businesses across the entire UK, not playing poker with people’s livelihoods.
Before the lockdown, I challenged Ministers on their tiered approach which provided limited economic support in an attempt to do lockdown ‘on the cheap’. You can watch some of my contributions here during a debate on local lockdowns in the North and in a Committee session scrutinising the restrictions here. I’ve also challenged the contradictions in the rules limiting hospitality businesses including the blanket 10pm ban (watch here) and the impact this is having on restaurants especially.

This week I’ve also called for more support for Newcastle’s night time economy. If we don’t support venues during this pandemic we will lose part of our history, character and some of what makes Newcastle great. I want the government to make the Local Restrictions Support Grant more flexible so that local authorities can use local knowledge to decide where business support is best spent.

The Chancellor has now thankfully made a last minute decision to extend the furlough scheme, self-employed support, and business grants until March, which is what we’ve been pressing him to do repeatedly since he first announced plans to wind it up.

This last minute scramble to catch up with public health measures needs to end and the Government must set out a proper plan for the next six months so that local businesses have certainty.

Ultimately, the biggest threat to the economy is the spread of the virus. If we do not get control of the virus now we could go into a situation where consumer confidence is low and restrictions are high during the crucial Christmas period.

I share the concern of many people for the wellbeing of clinically vulnerable residents, particularly during this second wave of the pandemic.

As Covid-19 cases have risen to alarming levels in Newcastle and much of the North East, extremely vulnerable people who were previously shielding have become increasingly concerned for their wellbeing. When the shielding programme ended in August so did the financial support, and serious questions remain over support for vulnerable people in areas where additional restrictions are in force. I wrote to the Prime Minister about the matter at the start of this month.

If a clinically extremely vulnerable person cannot work from home, the Government are advising them not to go to work and claim, if eligible, Statutory Sick Pay or Employment Support Allowance. Local authorities will be receiving ‘up to’ £14.60 per Clinically Extremely Vulnerable person for the 28-day period that the new restrictions are in force.

This level of support for the people most vulnerable to this virus is appalling and Labour are calling for people to be eligible to be furloughed instead.

The Health Secretary admitted back in March that the Statutory Sick Pay in the UK isn’t enough to live on.
There is now a Test and Trace Support payment of £500, but only those claiming Universal Credit, Working Tax Credit or a small number of legacy benefits are automatically eligible. That excludes 7 out of every 8 workers, including many of the lowest paid workers, such as those with No Recourse to Public Funds.

I’ve heard from people who have founded themselves not to be eligible, especially when they have been told to isolate by the NHS Test & Trace app.

They simply can’t put people in a position where they are forced to choose between isolating and being able to support their family and I will continue to press for extra support.

Exit plan
People in the North East want to know that there is a plan for exiting restrictions so we do not keep going through a cycle of lockdowns. The UK Government has so far not set out what criteria will be used to judge whether the lockdown should be lifted in England and I will continue to urge them to clarify this as a matter of urgency.

Test and trace
More widely, I believe the UK Government must use this lockdown to expand testing and fix contact tracing. This should include regular testing programmes to ensure key workers and those most at risk are using new, readily available rapid turn-around tests, including those developed by UK universities.

Scaling up community testing is vital to help protect jobs and restore confidence in businesses and the economy, and to keep workers, their families and communities safe by identifying those who may be carrying the virus without symptoms. I believe a plan to roll out strategic mass testing would give a clear, coherent roadmap for the next phase of containing the virus.

Testing should also be used to allow relatives to visit family and friends in care homes, during hospital visits for pregnancy and birth, and other protected environments, so that families are no longer kept apart from their loved ones and can be with them safely without risking spreading the virus.

The Test and Trace system in England has been overwhelmed and concerns have repeatedly been raised about the speed at which test results are returned, the number of contacts of positive cases being reached, and the extent to which data about confirmed cases is shared with local authorities and local public health teams. The outsourcing of Test and Trace to private firms has been widely criticised by experts, including the British Medical Association. I have long argued that local public health teams and the NHS, backed by resources and national support, would be more effective at contact tracing. You can see one of my recent representations on the issue here:

Data and projections
Some of you have raised with me your concerns about the accuracy of testing data and the projections made which underpin the decision to go into lockdown.

The way in which this information has been communicated by the Government and the mistakes that have come to light are incredibly damaging to public confidence.

The UK Statistics Authority has urged the government to make clear the source of data used in public briefings and the full figures behind it.

However, whilst the Government’s forecasted rate of deaths has been revised down, multiple studies from a range of organisations demonstrate that without intervention there would be huge pressure on the NHS going into the winter, which is already a difficult time for the health service. Hospitalisation rates in many regions were already, under the tiered system, heading toward difficulties.

The first lockdown resulted in cancellation and delays to many consultations and procedures and we cannot afford for the NHS to become overwhelmed again.

It is disappointing that the Government did not respond earlier with a two-week circuit breaker lockdown as advised by the SAGE Advisory Group to get a grip on the problem. The current month long restrictions, just before Christmas, would then have been avoidable.

We’ve had some positive news about one of the vaccine candidates and it’s a sign that there will be a way out of this on the horizon.

The Government must ensure they have a plan in place for getting this vaccine out to the population, when it is ready, so we do not see a repeat of the difficulties we have seen in their operation of Test and Trace.

However, in the meantime, it is absolutely vital that we continue to do everything we can to keep the virus under control. While the potential for a vaccine to return us to some level of normality by the Spring is really positive, the science does not yet show whether the it will stop transmission entirely.

We must remain vigilant in the weeks and months ahead.

Thank you once again for contacting me about these important issues. I understand the concern, worry, frustration and the impact this is having on many people’s lives. Please rest assured I will continue to lobby the Government to do everything required to get us through this crisis, protecting the NHS, saving lives and jobs.

Best wishes,